Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times presents a show exploring the experience of being Black and queer
In 1989, as fifteen-year-old white suburban queer kid, I snuck downstairs into the basement at midnight and watched Marlon Riggs’ groundbreaking documentary Tongues Untied on PBS with the sound turned down so low I was two inches from the set, afraid to be caught but more afraid to miss a second of it. As Black Boys started to unfold on the Buddies In Bad Times stage I found myself catapulted back to the electric sensation of seeing genre-defining work about queerness and Blackness.
The three co-creators and performers of Black Boys, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Tawiah Ben M’Carthy, and Thomas Olajide are all talented men with very different styles and energies, exploring the experience of being Black and queer (categories which are quickly questioned and complicated by the work).
The differences blend well in this piece, and director Jonathan Seinen does a good job helping the triumvirate stay in balance over the course of the piece. As much as it’s a piece about identity intersections, it’s also a piece that’s powerfully about losing and finding – home, family, safety, power, and even an authentic self. Which sounds very earnest and extremely wholesome – and indeed, Black Boys contains some of the most piercing politically charged moments in theatre I have seen in my life.
But the piece also finds its way to the playful, the sexy, the campy, and also to that strange and wonderful place beyond exhaustion, where the brain’s filters and protections have been rinsed away and suddenly all that’s left in a man’s mouth is his truth.
I have one complaint, and I will make it now so that I can return to the things I valued about the piece – 100 minutes is too long for a show with no intermission. By the end, audience attention can’t help but be strained and I am concerned that it does a disservice to the work. I understand why the performers, Seinen and choreographer Virgilia Griffith chose not to break the seal and let people leave midway, but the unfortunate side effect is that some of the ending monologues were accompanied by little choruses of rustling and creaking as people tried to hang in.
Back to what I appreciated about the work, now. In particular, two other choices stood out. First, the cast brought some of the meta-work into the performance – the internal disagreements and discussion about identity, about intersections and how gender expression and immigration make different things complicated for different people whom, to an outsider, might seem to share an experience. I am not usually a fan of this theatrical choice, and when I have liked it in the past 85% of the times it has been as done by Peggy Shaw. But this works; it felt honest and optimistic . Even in disagreement the desire to push through, to understand and be understood – together and with the audience – shimmered.
Second, I found much of the dance work delightful, and I am a person who often feels like I don’t understand dance. Somehow, choreographer Griffith’s work made instinctive, intuitive sense to me. I saw the themes and lines of the work so clearly as the movement parts highlighted and expanded upon the spoken, bringing in threads of emotion that bodies may have when words do not.
Overall, I can’t help but be grateful for the four years of dedication and patience that the creative team took in moving this piece from workshop to MainStage. This is an exceptional, powerful, and quite delightful piece of work. I feel lucky and grateful to have been able to see it, and I predict you will be too.
- Black Boys plays at Buddies In Bad Times, 20 Alexander Street), until Sunday, 11 December.
- Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm, with Sunday performance at 2:30pm. Accessible shows: ASL interpreted performance on 4 Dec and audio-described performance on 6 Dec.
- Tickets range in price from $20 (students/seniors/arts workers) to $39, with limited $25 weekday wish tickets available and PWYC performances on Sundays.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by phone at 416.975.8555, or in person at the box office.
photo of the cast by Jeremy Mimnagh